It is hard to say whether these novice observations on my first reading of In Search of Lost Time will run true through the entire novel or if they will be falsified as the pages wax on. This notion in itself is perhaps the most exhilarating part of reading any new book – will my opinion of this character hold? will my perception of the author continue? has my time been well spent, or should I just resort to Norm MacDonald clips on YouTube? The questions abound and cannot find a satisfactory answer unless the voyage undertaken has at last been completed, which when approaching something truly massive as Proust’s novel is an undertaking indeed. Given the time that the social distancing from the Coronavirus is likely to leave all of us, it is my hope that some of these answers will yield themselves, and perhaps give way to better and more probing questions that Proust has the power to inspire in his readers. What I offer here is not so much a summary as a set of impressions upon reading Proust which are hastily sketched but that might, in the end prove of some value when (and let’s be honest, if) this project is completed.
The Rooms We Inhabit
We meet Marcel at night in his room in the hazy moors between waking and sleeping, in that lucid dreamscape that we all inhabit. As the years climb forward, the number of rooms we inhabit as we lay down to sleep grow in number and begin to blur in our minds in an impressionistic portrait of memory and subconscious longing. Whether it is his childhood room in Combray or our first bedroom, we all know that place that compounds into other places that become the fabric of our dreams. Our loves, the monsters we first encountered in childhood, our adolescent dreams of love, the tales that wove themselves into the tapestry of our own memories so that the distance between Hobbits and morning coffee are separated by mere moments. Maybe in Marcel’s introduction, in his recollection of the rooms he has inhabited between waking and sleeping we are likewise invited to look upon ourselves and who we have become in the rooms in which we dream.
The Province of Grandmothers
“…for she was so humble of heart and so gentle in her tenderness for others and her disregard for herself and her own troubles blended in a smile which, unlike those seen on the majority of human faces, bore no trace of irony save for herself, while for all of us kisses seemed to spring from her eyes, which could not look on those she loved without seeming to bestow upon them passionate caresses.” It’s hard not to read this and think of my own grandmother. It’s been many years since her passing, but her unassuming eyes not only held out kisses for me (and all she loved), but they were among the first, and to date the few that have ever seen through the veil to the true self. She had the uncanny ability to accept people for who they were where they were while piercing down to the authentic person that is so easily buried under regret or fear or confusion. Somehow these lines brought me back to the kisses in her eyes that I carry with me in my own memories.
A Constellation of Selves
“…even in the most insignificant details of our daily life, none of us can be said to constitute a material whole, which is identical for everyone, and need only be turned up like a page in an account-book or the record of a will; our social personality is a creation of the thoughts of other people.” We would like to think that there is an irreducible self that exists within us that is identifiable to us and to the world outside of us. But the truth is far more complex, aside from being mysterious and unpredictable within the confines of our own internal experience, we are never a simple or singular thing to others. In a sense, their perceptions of us comprise, to greater or lesser fidelity, a composite that becomes woven into our self. Even misapprehensions become appendages to our identity – perhaps to be overcome, or at the very least dismissed inasmuch as they are not true. Nevertheless, Marcel is intimating an uncomfortable truth that any notion of the self exists in flux, and much of what we are perceived to be exists locked in the perspectives of others. There is no way of controlling the narrative, rather we can live into the truths or against the lies of the perceptions of others. Maybe that’s the best we can expect, but experience tells me that in some way or another Marcel’s observation is perennially true.
The Complexity of a Kiss
It is almost impossible to know where to begin with Marcel and his mother’s kiss given the weight it carries throughout the novel and the volumes written by critics and admirers of Proust. But a few things strike me right away. Marcel describes his mother’s kiss in unambiguously sacramental terms: “…when she had bent her loving face down over my bed, and held it out to me like a host for an act of peace-giving communion in which my lips might imbibe her real presence and with it the power to sleep.” Certainly this cannot include less that the life-giving power of a mother’s love that nurtures a child and assuages his fears. There is an identity, an affirmation given in his mother’s kiss that, in its absence throws Marcel into distress. But the complications inevitably enter in because unlike the grace of a sacrament which is always present in self-giving love, in the threat of his mother’s kiss being withheld Marcel is left feeling as if he must manipulate his way into this grace. This is compounded with the usual domestic neuroses that typify household relationships, where Marcel might go some time without being spoken to by his parents for one offense or another. With all of the psychological gymnastics that went into the kiss, Marcel, for all of the immediate relief he gets from his mother’s kiss that evening, he is left still in part regretting that moment. Kisses are never simple affairs, they are always complicated, as is the love we give and receive in even the very best of our relationships.
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More from Proust in a Time of Coronavirus. Feel free to join in and read In Search of Lost Time with us while we are all social distancing. Feel free to hit me up in the comments if you have any questions.